MONTPELIER — The Vermont House Governmental Operations committee has begun considering legislation to improve the way law enforcement agencies and emergency service personnel respond to calls of lost hikers, skiers and boaters.
A year after the death of Levi Duclos, the 19-year-old New Haven resident who died last winter on a hiking trail in Ripton after Vermont State Police delayed initiating a ground search, the Government Operations committee began hearings Feb. 14 on H.182, An Act Related to Search and Rescue. The bill was recommended by a legislatively appointed summer study committee composed of law enforcement and emergency personnel from around the state to amend state statutes and require enhanced cooperation between the State Police and local emergency organizations.
The proposed legislation would mandate that Vermont State Police immediately notify local fire departments upon receiving a search and rescue call. The first criticism leveled regarding the VSP response to the Jan. 9, 2012, report that Levi Duclos was an overdue hiker was that the state agency did not call the local fire department. First responders in the Bristol, Lincoln and Ripton fire departments include individuals highly trained in search and rescue, and well familiar with the terrain and trails on which Duclos was hiking.
“That was a big issue, and it was an important issue,” admits John Wood, deputy commissioner of the Vermont Department of Public Safety and co-chair of the search and rescue summer study committee. The Department of Public Safety voluntarily changed its internal policies to require notification of local fire departments within several weeks after the incident, and followed up the change with statewide meetings with local fire departments. State Police also changed their standard operating procedures in regard to shared incident command with local police and fire departments. These changes were later mandated by the Vermont Legislature in an interim protocol, which will remain in effect until new legislation passes.
The failure to call on local organizations in the Levi Duclos search and rescue case was neither unique nor new.
“I can tell you from experience … as a fire chief in this state for 30 some odd years there was and had been this perception that they didn’t call out the locals, and they didn’t in some cases,” Wood says. “I used to complain as the fire chief, back when Jocelyn Stohl was the search and rescue leader, and she would come in to the community or come into the area and bring in her search team and bring in other groups and not notify us. And it would irritate the local people and the local responders. That has been a longstanding issue.”
Wood believes that the policy changes requiring communication between State Police and local agencies are bringing about more positive relationships. The perception of conflict between agencies may still be out there, “but I don’t think it’s as true as it might have been five or 10 years ago,” Wood says. “I think that the Vermont State Police has changed and said we need to call the locals out more often when this happens. It’s institutionalized and it’s in the policy. We haven’t had one complaint from a local fire department or police department that they aren’t being notified or called out. You are always going to have this tit for tat thing going on with some local agencies with the State Police, but for the most part, when the bells hit and there’s an emergency, everybody comes together and they work just fine.”
The bill also requires municipal agencies to inform the Department of Public Safety if a search and rescue call comes in to a local police or emergency services organization. The State Police will not supplant local jurisdiction, however.
Local police agencies expressed concern over losing control over search and rescue in their own communities, “but the legislation is very clear to say that we don’t want that to happen,” Wood says. “We need, we want, and we support the local communities when they get a call for a missing person, that they immediately respond and begin their procedures on search and rescue.”
The bill taken up by the House committee leaves primary jurisdiction for search and rescue with the Vermont State Police rather than moving it to the Fish and Wildlife game wardens or any other agency. This direction garners continued criticism from the Duclos family and others in the community who see the added search and rescue funds, personnel and responsibilities headed to the State Police as a reward for a job poorly done. The proposal “still leaves the VSP in charge, which is a shame,” says Kathy Duclos, Levi’s aunt and the family spokesperson.
Vowing to get “the best bill possible out of this process,” Duclos points out that a close collaboration between the State Police and Vermont Fish and Wildlife discussed in the summer study committee has not been incorporated into the legislation now being considered. Unless the logistics of State Police-Fish and Wildlife collaboration are clearly set out in the new law, Fish and Wildlife funds for search and rescue may be stripped from their budget leaving the State Police with expanded powers and control over search and rescue in Vermont, Duclos stated in written comments to the committee.
John Wood strongly advocates leaving the point position for search and rescue with the Vermont State Police.
“One analogy I heard with all of this is if the car needs an oil change you don’t throw the car out, you get an oil change,” Wood says, noting that the State Police have been engaged in search and rescue functions since 1947, while any other agency would have to start from scratch.
Fish and Wildlife wardens “are in the woods all the time and they know the woods they know the backcountry and they are qualified to do that,” he says. “We look very much to their guidance, their support and the working relationship we have with them on every one of these searches. Both in the summer study committee and in testimony they’ve said they just don’t have the resources to be able to take on a large, long-term search and rescue mission.”
SAR COORDINATOR AND COUNCIL
During the first day of hearings on the search and rescue bill last week, the House Government Operations committee amended the provisions of H.182 to include a statutory mandate for creation of a search and rescue coordinator position, as well as to form a Search and Rescue Council. The coordinator slot would comprise a civilian employee charged with public outreach and education as well as technical assistance to volunteer search and rescue organizations. The council would provide training as well as oversight, conducting incident reviews of search and rescue operations within the state. Both functions, recommended by the summer study committee, were omitted from the bill as originally drafted, although funding for them had been included in the Department of Public Safety proposed budget this year.
Ensuring that the coordinator be a civilian, and that the council be charged with substantive review, oversight and transparency regarding search and rescue cases, are critical provisions for inclusion in the bill, Kathy Duclos advised the committee in written comments.
“We don’t want to build another ineffective oversight group,” Duclos added.
Having a coordinator will be a big step forward, John Wood agrees, although he envisions the coordinator working within the Department of Public Safety Public Information Office rather than as an external position — a key logistical detail not yet finalized by the Legislature. The coordinator will work with community groups that wish to participate in search and rescue operations, as well as engaging in outreach to the public regarding outdoor recreation safety.
An avid hunter who spends a considerable amount of time in the woods around his home in Norton, Wood understands the importance of preparation for time in the out of doors.
“I bring a compass, I dress appropriately,” he says, noting that although he has not been fully lost in the woods, he has been turned around, “especially out in the snow, you come back on your same tracks where you were and say ‘Wait a minute, how did I get here? I thought I just walked the other way.’ So now with GPS it seems everyone has a GPS and a compass when they go out. And a lot of people know the rules, are experienced, have a plan in case you have to start a fire and stay overnight and stay warm.”
Spreading information regarding proper gear, clothing and footwear for outdoor activities would be among the coordinator’s first responsibilities.
This ski season has seen a record number of search and rescue calls for out-of-bounds skiers leaving the marked trails of Vermont’s ski resorts.
“They had deep snow early in the season, good natural snow, and the ski areas were seeing a great deal of this stuff going on,” Wood says. In response, the ski areas stepped up their attempts to educate skiers about the importance of staying within bounds. “You saw the outreach, the public awareness, the ski areas are getting better at notifying their people, there’s education going on.”
Part of that education may be inspired by another bill, H.294, An Act Related to Liability for Skiing Off Trail. The proposed legislation, with nine sponsors including Rep. Bob Helm, Republican/Democrat of Fair Haven, would make the ski area liable to search and rescue organizations or state agencies that are called to find out-of-bounds skiers. The bill would authorize the ski resorts to tack a surcharge onto their lift tickets to cover these fees.
Although some other states charge lost hikers with the costs of their search and rescue recovery operations, no similar provision has been included to date in proposed search and rescue legislation in Vermont.
Additional changes are anticipated as the search and rescue bill, H.182, moves through the Legislature.
“We have more work to do on the bill but are thankful to the summer study committee for giving us the framework for moving forward,” says Rep. Donna Sweaney, D-Windsor, chair of the House Government Operations committee.
Freelance writer Cindy Hill of Middlebury can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.